Travel

The Ultimate (& Tastiest) Solo Travel Bucket List for Beginners & Pros Alike

Eight destinations we're booking tickets for, stat.

October  8, 2018
Photo by Nikkitha Bakshani

Before any trip I take solo, I take a piece of paper and make two columns: Food and Not Food, the former containing a list of restaurants and markets I’ve come across in my research, the latter listing everything else. This loose guide, rather than an hour-by-hour itinerary, lets me stray away from the Google Maps route to follow one that looks more scenic (or smells more heavenly, if I’m following my nose). That’s the beauty of traveling alone—you can be as on-schedule or as distracted as you want, with nobody to grumble about whether you’re going too far in either direction.

My first solo trip happened by accident. I was supposed to go to Paris to stay with friends, but the November 2015 attacks happened the day before my flight from Milan. (Even without the tragic news putting my inconvenient schedule change into perspective, it takes a whole lot of nerve for any traveler to complain about having to stay in Italy.)

Maybe it was my positive attitude that made my subsequent trip to Florence and Siena so unforgettable. Or maybe it was how I could take my sweet time at the [Medici mansion] without worrying about slowing others down, or all the interesting conversations I struck up with strangers because I was suddenly brave enough to do so. I think it was probably that I could tuck into long, leisurely dinners with [pasta and meat courses] with the company of a [good murder mystery] or the new journal I bought at [that local paper and ink shop that’s been around since the 1600s]. I read those entries today—especially when I feel spread thin from [too much work] or [not enough me-time]—and think, “ [la vita è bella].” Customize any of these bracketed terms to the local color of any destination on your list, and I promise you will have as unforgettable a time as I did.

If you don’t have a list—or you want to cross-check, rejigger, or add to your list—here are eight destinations we’re partial to when it comes to solo travel, because they are: a) supremely walkable, and b) supremely eatable. Walkable cities are great when you’re solo traveling because you have a lot of time on your hands, so you may as well digest the city slowly and in stride. Eatable cities are why we even travel, let’s be real here. Finally, we considered safety, based on our own and other publications’ and solo bloggers’ accounts.

First-time solo travelers, don’t be afraid to take this leap: There is no better way to relax than to explore, to give yourself some company with your thoughts, your wants, and—duh—your appetite.

Note: While the destinations on this list are known to be safe, please note that traveling alone does make you slightly more vulnerable, wherever in the world you are. Take off those headphones, especially at night, when you should stick to busy streets as much as possible. Avoid unregistered taxis (one of the reasons the cities here are very walkable!). Keep your belongings, including any food or drinks you order, attended. Always trust your instincts.


Amsterdam, The Netherlands

I know I said walkable cities are great for solo travel, and while Amsterdam is very walkable, it’s even more wonderful to take in via bicycle. Not only will you feel like a local, but this way, you could spend less time getting to the neighborhoods outside the city center and more time roaming them. Oud-West, to name just one, is right-angled by Vondelpark on the south and Rembrandtpark to the east—two excellent places to picnic with a book and some stroopwafel you pick up along the way. While you’re there, tuck into Surinamese food at Waterkant, a striking, zebra-like structure with a refreshing tropical vibe (even in the winter), and browse the clothes and home goods at Scandi-cool Johnny at the Spot.

It goes without saying that the city’s museums and markets can easily swallow hours of your day, but do save an hour or two for the theater; Orange Theatre Company produces contemporary English-language plays in venues across the city.

While you’re there, you may as well take a day trip to, say, GOUDA (all caps because cheese), where you can all varieties of this world-famous cheese and study the town’s lesser known eponymous style of pottery, distinctive for its Art Nouveau-style colors. Punt your way through the car-free city of Giethoorn, with its distinctive thatched-roof farmhouses, or visit Haarlem, which is known for its cozy boutiques and the Teylers Museum, probably the only collection in the world that carries old masters like Michelangelo and Rafael and still manages to be cozy. All these destinations are two hours or less by train.


Oaxaca City, Mexico

This small (read: walkable) city is an ideal long weekend getaway if you live in southern parts of the U.S., but for those of you who live farther north, it’s still worth setting aside four-or-so days to see. It’s high on most food lovers’ travel lists for mole—sample the seven standard types with rice at Los Pacos Centro, which came highly recommended to me by a taxi driver—and mezcal, which is typically served in shallow clay cups in these parts. Most bartenders will happily walk you through the seemingly endless varieties of the agave-based liquor, but the most passionate ones are at Mexcalogia, where you can also take in some live music.

For a half- or full-day affair of seeing the city’s surrounding areas, Mezcounting offers English-language tours of the city’s surrounding agave fields as well as traditional, home-taught Mexican cooking classes, all of which benefit local charities and sustainability efforts. Definitely eat any street food you spot, especially tejate—a cool drink made of ground corn, local cacao, cinnamon, and mamey fruit seeds, which are often served in hollowed gourd shells that are painted over in blue and red patterns.

There is no shortage of museums, churches, boutiques, and markets to wander here. Standouts include the Oaxaca Textile Museum and the Institute of Graphic Arts, which has a huge library of art books and a courtyard canopied by pink bougainvillea, where you can grab a table and flip through some of those books.

Right by the iconic Santo Domingo de Guzman church is the botanical garden, and if you go on a Saturday or Sunday, you’ll almost definitely catch the start of some traditional wedding parades—processions of dancers and musicians that carry larger-than-life effigies of just-married couples. Leave room in your suitcase, because you definitely want to go back with colorful hand-blown glass from Xaxique—just one of the city’s many artisan home goods boutiques.


Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.

Books are essential company when you’re traveling solo, so of course the city that holds Powell’s—former car dealership, current gigantic bookstore—is a shoe-in for this list. (The North Burnside location is the original, and it’s where you can catch a variety of events and browse the rare book room.) As for food, well, it’s no secret that PDX is serious when it comes to creativity (see: Voodoo Doughnuts) and quality (see: this famous Portlandia skit).

Consider staying at the Ace Hotel, or at least visiting, for the chatty communal tables in the lobby, where guests and locals alike sip on Stumptown coffee in its hometown, and Pepe Le Moco, the coved basement tapas and cocktail bar trying to do away with the idea that cocktail bars are intimidating.

More notable eateries—and there are so many—include Kachka, which serves Russian-inspired cuisine (the co-chefs’ cookbook won our most recent Piglet); Lardo, one of the country’s most talked-about sandwich shops; and Le Pigeon, a French bistro with long lines and a long list of foie gras items. But the best way to eat the city is just to stumble upon a restaurant you vibe with. Culinary standards are high in this city, so chances are it will knock your socks off.

If you can, rent a car and get yourself to Mt. Hood Village (less than two hours from the city), the starting point for one of America’s most picturesque hikes, or visit the bountiful farm stands on the Hood River Fruit Loop. But since the city itself is so easy to get around on foot, bike, and public transport, you won’t need a car for the whole trip, and there are buses that go to Mt. Hood Village as well.


Quebec City, Quebec, Canada

One of the only walled cities in North America, Quebec City is quite the looker (and easy to travel to from the East Coast). In fact, it’s home to the most photographed hotel in the world, the 125-year-old Chateau Frontenac. But you don’t have to stay there to enjoy its many charms, especially during the postcard-like winters. Elizabeth Avery, who has been globetrotting solo for 50 years, has returned to the city six times, and she highly recommends what the city has to offer in winter sports, what with the surrounding regions’ 1200-plus miles of cross-country ski trails.

As for food, there is so much more than poutine, though if you must—and you must—get them at Chez Gaston, probably the fanciest-sounding greasy spoon ever. Quebec City’s quintessential dish is tourtière, a flaky, double-crusted meat pie; try that and a maple pie, too, at Aux Anciens Canadiens, which, true to its name, has been serving traditional Quebecois fare since 1675. Ogle at the pastries and friends at the Halles Sainte Foy Market, or make a friend or two while letting a local food tour do all the research for you.


Kyoto, Japan

If what you’re looking for is a meditative solo trip, then Kyoto, with its 1600 temples—each so nuanced in its peacefulness—and many ryokans (quaint inns with hot spring baths) does the trick. The most recognizable temple is Fushimi Inari-taisha, with its undulating vermillion gates. (Pro tip: Go early in the morning, when it’s most crowd-free—especially in the summer months when walking up the mountain trails can be rigorous.) Public transportation is clean, safe, easy to figure out, and always on time, which streamlines all that temple-hopping. In Japan, shrines often have calligraphers at the entrance who mark blank, back-to-front Japanese-style notebooks with that temple’s symbol; definitely buy one and fill it up as a sort of spiritual autograph book/souvenir.

As satisfying as a Japanese convenience store egg salad sandwiches is, in Kyoto, you should consider shelling out for kaiseki, multi-course dinner in which hyper-seasonal food is presented as an art form. Miyamasou and Hyotei have Michelin stars and tranquil scenery, but it’s difficult to find a sub-par dining experience here.

For a less august sampling of Kyoto fare, head to the five-block–long Nishiki Market and photograph away. Order a drink—and watch the bartender take his cool time making it, because it will be worth the wait—at the barely-lit Sfera Bar Satonaka, on the top floor of the architect-lauded Sfera building—also home to a home goods store, art gallery, and music shop. Since Kyoto is landlocked, Kyoto-style sushi leans on cured fish and grilled fish; you’ll find it at its most traditional at Izuju—where the square pieces tightly packed into boxes almost look like candy.


Porto, Portugal

Portugal has won the hearts of many solo travelers for its colorful scenery, friendly residents, and petiscos—bite-sized snacks that you dare not compare to tapas in front of a local.

What makes Porto in particular stand out is its relaxed pace, historic bookstores—where you’ll notice the pretty detail of how books by the same author are tied together with thin ropes—and opportunities to connect with fellow travelers over a glass of port wine (or vinho verde) at a tasting or a free walking tour. The hilly city is navigable enough that you can see it on foot, but if you want to take a trip to the beach, it should not take you more than 30 minutes by bus.

The city’s most iconic dish is the francesinha, which unlike a dainty petisco, features bread layered with linguiça sausage, bacon, more pork, beef, and cheese, in a moat of tomato-beer sauce and fries to boot. If you fancy only two kinds of pork in your sandwich, the wine-rosemary-garlic roasted meat in a terylene is for you; order it with sparkling red wine at Flor dos Congregados, a tasca (old-fashioned restaurant) down a secluded alley. And don’t forget to sample a pastel de nata...everywhere you see one.


Vietnam

This is the only destination on this list I stated as a country, not a city, because there are so many wonderful group tours, many of which are semi-independent, that take you from the northern city of Hanoi to the southern city of Saigon, with Ha Long Bay and towns along the Mekong River along the way. While that may not necessarily make it a DIY solo trip, it does make planning—especially if you want to visit magnificent hard-to-reach caves and floating cities—loads easier.

But tour or no tour, Vietnam topped many “best solo travel destination lists” in 2017 and 2018 for its safety and photogenicism. (See what I did there? Sorry not sorry.)

New York Times writer Alexandra E. Petri, formerly of National Geographic, cites it as her favorite solo destination for food. “At the end of each day, I’d anticipate waking up to cups of Vietnamese coffee and afternoons searching for bánh xèo (turmeric-spiced pancakes), bò lúc lắc (shaking beef), or cao lầu (a simple dish of noodles, pork, and greens from Hội An).” Notice that none of these are too well-known Stateside—and there’s so much more where these came from.


Buenos Aires, Argentina

It may take two to tango, but it only takes one traveler to wholeheartedly enjoy Buenos Aires, with its amicable locals and artsy cafes, where you can tuck into late-afternoon, often sweet meals called meriendas. There are so many ways to connect with other travelers here, including tango lessons.

For example, every Tuesday night, an organization called Mundo Lingo throws huge get-togethers (with free pizza) in which speakers of different tongues come together to find commonalities beyond language. Services like Eat With or The Argentine Experience allow you a seat at a dinner party; in the latter, you even learn the proper way to pinch an empanada shut. Introverts and anyone else can find joy just by perusing the city’s fascinating architecture, which range from Belle Epoque to Brutalist.

Both Serious Eats and AFAR confirm that closed-door restaurants—which are not secretive clubs, but rather meals typically served at a chef’s home—are not to be missed by anyone who likes food more than a little. They tend to be more experimental and are only open a couple of nights per week. Desserts with dulce de leche, especially shortbread sandwich cookies called alfajores, reign supreme here. The city’s legendary steakhouses (parrillas) range from reasonably priced (El Pobre Luis, El Trapiche) to enough to make your wallet whimper (Cabaña Las Lilas}. Whatever you eat, don’t forget to order a Malbec to go with it.

Are you a fan of traveling solo? Share your favorite destinations with us below!

4 Comments

Dessito October 18, 2018
Where is the first (unidentified) photo from? The red-shingled rooftops suggest Central/Eastern Europe, but I am curious for the exact location. :)
 
Author Comment
Nikkitha B. October 18, 2018
That's Porto! It's a truly stunning place.
 
miznic October 14, 2018
I'm here reading this over a cup of some really good coffee, with a croissant and thinking "I really need to make sure my passport is up to date..." and "am I still getting emails for those airlines? - I should check their rates for some of these places..." <br /><br />Thanks for jump-starting my Sunday brain! :D
 
Author Comment
Nikkitha B. October 14, 2018
Happy to help!